At this season kicked-off a gale rushed down the M62 all the way to the gates of Old Trafford, causing them to shudder in anticipation. No, it was not an August storm in Manchester but the sharp intake of breath from all Red Devils’ fans in the vicinity that caused the disturbance. What would life without Ronaldo amount to and had Fergie taken to big a risk by keeping the £80m in his back-pocket instead of splashing it on a couple of big name replacements? Should we resign ourselves to a season of ‘transition’ and lower our expectations……..?
The answer to those, and several other questions, are the subject of much debate amongst Utd fans right now….and plenty of disagreement too. To me it’s not a straight forward issue. There have been, and are, many factors in play. So to try and establish some sort of conclusion I’ll attempt to break these down as I see them.
But first a little quiz question! Many Utd fans would point to the performances against Spurs, Man City (2nd half in particular) and Chelsea as some of our best play this season. But what unique factor applied to those three games?
Answer: They were the ONLY 3 games this season in which both Fletcher and Anderson started in midfield………..something I’ll get back to later.
The one thing we can all probably agree on is that you can’t lose a player of Ronnie’s quality and adjust overnight. Clearly Fergie would engage in some experimentation with both players and formations. Clearly, also, there was a need for some others to step-up (out of Ronaldo’s shadow as it were) and contribute more, so that the sum of the whole would compensate, at least partially, for that loss.
What I personally hoped for and how I see the outcomes so far were/are the following:
1. That Valencia would settle quickly and bring some quality to the wide right position.
Verdict: I think he has settled quickly and has exceeded my expectations, also weighing in with 5 goals to date. So I give that box a tick.
2. That Rooney and Berbatov would lead the line, form an excellent partnership and contribute at least 15+ more goals between them than last season.
Verdict: Rooney has been outstanding and is having his best season so far, including in the goals scored column. But the partnership hasn’t yet flourished, partly due to Berba’s injury.
I would rather see this duo every time than Rooney/Owen or 4-5-1. Fergie needs to sort that.
On Berba himself; he started 9 of the first 11 games and scored 4 goals but has only made 1 start in the last 7. That’s an increase on his ratio of 9 goals in 31 starts last season (league only). He’s still taking a lot of stick from some quarters but I think he’s the real deal. He does need to increase his goal tally but his creative ability and ‘class’ are obvious to me and I disagree with the doubters.
But only a half tick on that one so far.
3. That Owen would stay fit and maybe contribute as many goals as Tevez did last season, mainly as an impact sub.
Verdict: So far so good but play him off the bench and don’t start him with Rooney!
4. That Nani would emerge from Ronnie’s shadow and finally realise his potential.
Verdict: He hasn’t! A couple of good games but inconsistent, as usual, and he has probably signed his exit papers with the comments he made during the last international break. I agree with those fans who think Fergie should call time on Nani and get rid (although with a nagging reservation that won’t seem to go away). You can argue that he has never had a run of games and that is valid….but if that is what Fergie thinks of him then we’re flogging a dead horse on that one.
So no tick there but on the positive side, Obertan (who I didn’t think would play any significant part this season), has started brightly and looks a good prospect. The other thing to add here is that I don’t think we need to play with 2 orthodox wingers all the time, if at all, and often look better this season with a more compact midfield unit.
5. That Foster would step-up and grasp the opportunity to become No.1 for both Utd and England.
Verdict: Not much to say really. He blew his chance with a couple of huge errors. I still think he’s a decent keeper but is now undermined and whether or not he can recover from that remains to be seen. That said, a fit VDS is still well capable of getting the job done and recently Kuszczak has stepped-up so I’ve no short-term worries about that position.
6. That the defence would remain the rock on which everything else is built and continue with the excellent record they have had in recent seasons.
Verdict: The rock has wobbled….but this is purely down to circumstances and will right itself in time. Consider these stats:
VDS: Started 5 of 18 league games.
Rio: Started 5 of 18 and was never match fit.
Evans: 7/18 starts
Brown: 8/18 starts
Vidic: 11/18 starts
Neville, O’Shea and the Da Silva twins all unavailable for long periods due to injury and in recent weeks Fletcher and Carrick regular features in the defence! Utd’s strength in depth at the back is immense: GK: VDS/Kuz/Foster; RB: Neville/O’Shea/Brown/Rafael; LB: Evra/O’Shea/Fabio/De Laet; CB: Rio/Vidic/Evans/Brown/O’Shea/Neville.
That’s 10 defenders (ignoring GK) for 4 positions, 3 of which can play in more than one position. But it’s been an injury nightmare of unprecedented proportions and has unquestionably cost us points. And….make no mistake….when the defence is that fragile it runs through the rest of the team (Fulham?). I see no need whatsoever to buy a defender….just get them fit!
7. That Fergie would finally decide what his best ‘middle’ four were and stop the endless rotation!
Verdict: Where to start…..and forgive me if I go on a bit! I need to break this one down.
My first disappointment on this one came early. Between game 1 (Birmingham) and game 2 (Burnley), Fergie rotated the entire middle 4!
But let’s start with some history. For nearly 2 years now, it seems to me, that neither Fergie nor the Utd faithful have had any idea (or at least an ability to agree on) what Utd’s best midfield selection is. Granted, last season we played a massive 66 games, going all the way in every competition bar the FA Cup (semis), including the CWC and the ESC. That was 11 games more (or 20%) than Liverpool! To cope with the injuries, suspensions and fatigue that that sort of schedule brings you have to rotate and rely on squad depth.
The downside is that you sacrifice continuity, team understanding and that intuitive thing that goes with all great teams who play as a unit and where players develop an instinct for each other. Much of the criticism I’ve seen leveled at Utd this season pertains to exactly that….but many forget that last season was not very different…..Ronnie et al. Even the 11 straight win run was full of single goal wins, digging out results and not always being totally convincing….but circumstances demanded rotation and constant change…and that’s what that brings. But this season it’s been the manager’s choice (for the most part)…not circumstances!
In order to get down to a ‘settled’ midfield unit I felt (at the start of the season) that Giggs and Scholes should take a back seat. Wrong on Giggsy, he’s been excellent but still should only be used in certain games (and with the right combination). But RIGHT on Scholesy (legend that he is and always will be). It’s a season to far for Scholesy in my opinion. For every good game he has, he has 1 average game and 2 poor ones. His tackling is a liability and in any ‘big’ game he just doesn’t have what it takes for a midfield battle anymore.
After months of procrastinating and arguing with myself I’ve finally sorted my head out on this one….and my conclusion is this: Fletcher and Anderson should start every ‘big’ game and most of the rest. After that I would go with Valencia wide right and either Carrick or Giggs (different formations obviously) as the 4th….occasionally Obertan left….if he continues to impress. Just a sub-note on Carrick here…..he constantly ships criticism for all the wrong reasons, I think we can all agree he is NOT a defensive midfielder (never mind a centre half!). Play him with Giggs, Scholes and Valencia (Liverpool) and expect him to do the leg work and defensive duties and he looks crap…not his game! Play him with Fletch and Ando, who do the leg work, allowing Carrick to get on the ball and play his passing game and he’s a different player.
Why Fletch and Ando? Well ok, the quiz question above isn’t statistically representative enough to underwrite the case, granted, but they bring energy, box to box play, tackling and goals (Fletch anyway) to the equation and, for my money, are our best combination. Many still criticise Ando but at 21 I believe that he is a player who thrives on confidence. Give him the shirt and I’ve no doubt he will deliver. High energy, excellent left foot…he will score more and his passing accuracy will improve with confidence and experience.
If Hargreaves returns to full fitness then maybe that equation changes…. but that will be a bonus. Yes, it’s fantastic to have 10 players who can get the job done in the ‘middle’, most with huge experience at every level, but it’s time for continuity and establishing a team again, as opposed to a squad.
So how do you possibly conclude on all of that? Well firstly, considering the injury situation and the fact that we are only 4 points off the top and well in contention at this stage I’ve got to be optimistic. It is not unreasonable to suggest that if our defenders were all fit we would actually be top right now. I reject the rejection of some fans of the fact that we have scored 8 more league goals this season than at the same point last season, while they concentrate on a perception that ‘we’re just not as convincing or as good as last year’. For many of the reasons discussed above they may have a point but let’s not mix apples with oranges here!
Goals scored are a tangible fact, particularly in the light of all the pre season sensationalism of “where will Utd find the 40 goals that Ronnie and Tevez produced…they won’t!” Well so far they have…and then some…so argue the case as you see it but leave that one out please. I can give you the stats on goals from midfield last season compared with this….but you get the point already.
‘Four in a row’ hangs on two key issues for me. Obviously the injuries in defence need to be sorted or we’ll continue to drop points. But secondly, and most importantly in my view, Fergie has to get over the (seemingly obsessive) midfield rotation and play his best players more consistently…..basically get back to having a best 11 or at least a best 13/14, instead of a very competent squad system that sacrifices flair and dominance.
The competition are there for the taking this year and the PL will probably be won with fewer points than in recent seasons. I reject the cries of other Utd fans that we need to spend big in January. Would I object to signing a quality attacking player? Not necessarily…as long as it’s the right one. Do I think we have to spend to contest 4 in a row? No! All my wishes for the season have not been realissed but enough have, which if combined with proper team selection by Fergie, and something less than a tragic injury crisis gives me the confidence that we can do the unique 4 in a row.
It’s about in-depth analysis, truly getting behind the issues (some within the control of the manager…some not) and not over-reacting to individual results. Luck, as always, will play a big part and already has.
Can we do 4 in a row without spending……..absolutely!
Will we? That’s in the lap of the Gods I’m afraid….and Fergie……but then again…isn’t he one of them?????